Essay 61: Historical Understanding as a Moving Target: Modernity

Daniel Defoe (died 1731) was a great English writer whom you remember from such works as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.

He was also a very astute economy-watcher and published numerous tracts and studies on the British economic scene of the 1720s, such as:

Now normally we associate British industrialism from the 1760s or thereabouts as the launching of modern England with the transport revolutions (railways to cars and buses and subways and cars and planes) and the communications revolution (telegraph to phone to internet to cellphones) and so on.

The very distinguished English historian Christopher Hill shines an alternative light on this trajectory into the modern when he writes: “The England around which Daniel Defoe was beginning to tour at the end of our period (1720s) was very different from that through which James I rode in 1603. We are already in the modern world—the world of banks and cheques, budgets, the stock exchange, the periodical press, coffee-houses, clubs, coffins, microscopes, shorthand, actresses and umbrellas.”

“It is a world in which governments put first the promotion of production, for policy is no longer determined by aristocrats whose main economic activity is consumption. The country as a whole has become far richer. The amount raised in taxes has multiplied by twenty-five.”

(Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714, Norton 1966, page 307)

In the 1720s of Defoe’s commercial travels in England, the techno-industrial revolutions are still far off. And yet Professor Hill states “we are already in the modern world.”

Lastly: if you see the miniseries on TV, Moll Flanders, based on Defoe’s novel, the phrase “the wheel of fortune spins again” is a motif in the series and one gets the feeling that the society is very changeable and “modern transitory,” where, as Marx put it, “All that is solid melts into air.”

Thus so-called “modernity” can be thought of as a “moving target” for our historical understanding.